By Justin Young; Scottish Gaelic text translated by Iain Finlay MacLeod;
Directed by Phillip Howard
Produced by Dundee Rep Ensemble
Off Broadway, New Play
Runs through 6.28.15
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street
by Jerron Herman on 6.11.15
Muireann Kelly, Angus Peter Campbell and Garry Collins in In My Father's Words. Photo by Carol Rosegg.
BOTTOM LINE: In this intimate dramedy, an estranged father and son redefine what it means to “talk about your feelings.”
Louis (Garry Collins), a Classics lecturer, enters his childhood home after a fifteen-year stint away to find his father Don (Angus Peter Campbell) soaking wet on the living room floor, mumbling to himself. A fine welcome. Overwhelmed with the new task of caring for him and completing a massive translation project that is nine years late, Louis incurs the help of a plainspoken caregiver, Flora (Muireann Kelly). As she introduces herself to Don he responds in perfect Gaelic, a language Louis has never heard him speak. And in this bizarre occurrence Louis faces the fear there is much more to know about his vastly ailing father.
Then another hit: Flora can’t take the night shift due to her daughter. In order to keep her assistance at all Louis steps up to take the responsibility. So, as Flora leaves in the evening, having tried to uncover Don’s secrets, Louis remains aloof. As they switch, though, Louis and Flora deepen their interest in Don’s waning mind, with surprising results for both of them. It’s in the small Canadian cabin, which Don built with his bare hands, the trio oscillates between clarity and uncertainty of how language binds them to one another.
I was nervous about ten minutes in: would this be an intellectual argument versus a real story? Would the characters represent ideas over actual people? What I was sensing was playwright Justin Young’s impeccable ability to set up polarized individuals with dastardly strong wants who won’t compromise. Louis, played with annoyingly delightful stoicism by Collins, unapologetically calls his father “Don.” I don’t know how they do it in Canada, but I know I could never get away with that. This precise word choice details Don and Louis’ relationship, or lack thereof. The missed connection is ironic because of Louis’ fascination with language in the Classics, especially within The Odyssey. As “one of the most respected Classics lecturers in North America,” he spins his wheels by mirthlessly introducing a young generation to an ancient tongue while neglecting his father. Often using Greek in his lectures, he emphasizes the difficult task of perfect translation; how some words are lazily repurposed. It is hilarious, then, that the Classics professor easily laughs off Flora’s idea to learn Gaelic and better understand his dad, ahem, father.
In concert with Louis the stoic, we have the wall known as Don, played methodically by Campbell. Where his present mind is fraught by forgetfulness, in the recesses lies an animated past both compelling and alive. It is exhilarating to witness Don become lucid especially when he reveals his secrets in an unknown tongue.
Holding the men together is the glorious Flora, played magnificently by Kelly. I was unsure how the play would keep me rooting and it’s through this character and Kelly’s portrayal of her that one sees hope. Though she, too, is stubborn and determined we are encouraged by her invasion. Flora represents the malleability Louis hasn’t got in even his index finger. With these polar opposites barbs, and sparks, inevitably fly.
With such an intimate story, the stage’s design remarks this intimacy beautifully. From Fiona Watt’s inspired wooden set, complete with a gigantic trunk that raises it and Don’s bedroom to the ceiling. On the ground is an eye-opening amount of discord that represents Don’s deteriorating mind. Louis cannot stand his childhood home to be in its disarray and he meticulously moves through the clutter. Amidst the dirty dishes and piles of “askew-eth” papers are also several means of light. Privy to real cabin decor, warm lighting is used lovingly in this production; but lamps and open refrigerators are also used as signals and passages to unspoken thoughts. Grant Anderson’s lighting sets a calming tone in this lonely fort, but also invigorates our realism with some beautifully surrealist moments.
An accompanying design element steeped in need, but borders inspiring, is the production’s supertitles for the characters’ use of Gaelic and Greek, created by ISO and Emlyn Firth. Varied fonts and rather cool reveals help the flow of language. Though not led by the characters’ exchanges, the supertitles actually read like poetry, so they lead the audience and our perception of that moment. I appreciated there was a little more thought put into this feature given the play is interested in language as a vehicle. But then there are also abstract images which give us exciting information through flecks of white dust, ripples of water, and in retrospect, a key to understanding the whole play.
This production by Dundee Rep Ensemble is quite worthwhile. Because of some wonderfully strong reveals I am compelled to say no more of this great little show. Though it tackles heavy issues like the study of dead languages, limiting Canadian locations, and dementia, this play is warm, unexpectedly charming, and powerful. The Scottish actors’ portrayals are very satisfying, the set design is fresh, and direction by Phillip Howard is tighter than a ship captain’s. This little show takes on many epics -- The Odyssey and Gaelic language, for example -- with real curiosity, depositing old tales into the blood of this play. And soon In My Father’s Words itself reads like an epic with something new to say about discovering inward and out.
(In My Father's Words plays at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, as part of Brits Off Broadway, through Sunday, June 28, 2015. Performances are Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7:15; Fridays at 8:15; Saturdays at 2:15 and 8:15; and Sundays at 3:15. Tickets are $35 and can be purchased at 59e59.org by calling Ticket Central at 212-279-4200.)